Preserving block printing traditions


Artisans have been creating textiles by the skill of hand block printing for over 350 years in Bagru, a town located about 30 km outside of Jaipur city, India.  It began there because of a river, the Sanjaria river, that once ran through the land, though sadly has been dry for about 50 years now.  The river had a reputation for having minerals in it that made printed cloth washed in its water more vibrant and the mud from the banks was used for the resist printing method, called dabu.

Jaipur has two well-known communities of block printing near it, one being Bagru and the other being Sanganer.  Since Sanganer is located closer to the city it thrived in the 1960’s and 70’s during the “hippy movement”.  Bagru, being further away, was left more alone by the international market then, and because of this it preserved elements of more traditional block printing, which in recent years, has gained it more attention.

During my first journey to India several years ago, involving an artist residency for painting and three months of solo travels all over the country, found a producer of block printing in Jaipur and had prototypes made of hand block printed silk crepe pants using only natural dyes.  It was at this time I came to know Bagru and the company Bagru Textiles, which brought together a group of 20 printers so that they could work directly with the designers, eliminating the need for a middleman. Their set-up and mission to empower the artisans as well as the whole neighborhood with a community fund was exactly what I had been looking for and decided to work with them.  At that time, I was forced to fly back home because of an accident but I began communicating with these printers via email and skype immediately. I flew back to India eight months later to spend several weeks there getting to be hands on with the whole development.

The process is as important as the product for Seek and influences the designs and timing incredibly. Each season I a few weeks developing prints, printing methods, and experimenting with color combinations using natural dyes. My design is brought to a small group of block carvers who carve it into wood with incredible precision using ancient tools. Each color and design requires a separate block, and once the blocks are completed printing can begin. In Bagru, block printing is typically a family trade, so most homes have at least one block printing table. All the printing done for Seek is created in the homes of these printers.

When we print with natural dyes (dyes derived from plants or minerals) the fabric needs a base dye of “harda”, created from fruit of the myrobalan plant. When we resist print, no base dye is needed. Resist printing happens with a mud paste called “dabu”, it’s with sawdust, and then immersed in a dye bath, such as a 12 foot deep vat of indigo. Both processes require several rounds of washing, and because Rajasthan is a desert state the water used is conserved and recycled for as long as possible. Between printing, dying and washing the fabric needs to be dried, which is done by the blazing Rajasthani sun with the fabric laid out in large fields, on rooftops, and hung from buildings.

Being able to immerse myself in the community and form lasting bonds with the people I work with in Bagru is the foundation to Seek as a company and business. I treasure that these skilled crafts people have become dear friends whom I visit with over chai at least twice a year.  It’s incredibly important that they get paid wages they set themselves and set up as a community as well as feel appreciated for their skills and craft.

There are so many factors involved when working with hand done work that also depends on the environment.  During the monsoon season, no printing can be done and during the winter months the foggy weather can stall printing and even affect the colors of natural dyes. After nearly ten years working in corporate design, this method as well as the artisans themselves is constantly teaching me new ideas, techniques, and problem solving solutions. It is not just about producing luxury, contemporary goods and a brand, it is about seeking out the right people to work with and finding ways to do business that makes the process personal and responsible to the community and environment.

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